Sunday, April 17, 2011

For a tantalizing moment I see the life that was Prince Charming disperse into it's many components in your small intestine.

Edible, adj.: Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

~Ambrose Bierce

For a tantalizing moment I see the life that was Prince Charming disperse into it's many components in your small intestine.

You've walked Hoi An's historic Old Town, you've crossed the Japanese Covered Bridge constructed in 1593. In Hue, Vietnam you spent hours in the Citadel, the former imperial city built in the early 1800s surrounded by a moat that couldn't keep out American bombs. You've trekked to temples, cycled to pagodas, canoed to royal tombs. You sat foot in the Forbidden Purple City. It continued in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, where Ho Chi Minh's remains remain, embalmed in the tradition of Lenin and Stalin and Mao despite his dying wishes to be cremated. You strolled by the communist revolutionary's presidential palace and stilt house, you read in the Temple of Literature because, well, it seemed appropriate. The front gate is inscribed with a command: 'Dismount from your horses.' And you did that too.

You've been on the go-go-go, you're in one of the world's most exotic countries, in all likelihood you'll never return. You must see it all. Right now. Before it dissolves in the mist or, more likely, modernity. You wake up stuffing your pockets with peanut brittle and run from one attraction to the next, rehydrating with Bird's Nest Beverage and reenergizing with raw ginseng root. Yesterday a blur, today moving with the flash of the camera lens, tomorrow just a blink of an eye. The entire country an obscure smear in the mind, abstract art, you have the rest of your life to make sense of it all. Throughout all this you've remembered to breathe.

Congratulations. You're familiar with Vietnam's architecture and its former leader's face gracing every dong bill, now more waxy than real. You have a first-five-pages-of-a-five-ton-book understanding of the country's history.

Take a day, take your time, don't be the hare or even the tortoise. Embody the sloth. Sit in Hanoi's Lenin Park, stare out across Bay Mau Lake, watch people who are watching people who are watching people who are watching you. Old women shuffle past in conical hats, old men slide cylinders on chalk-on-pavement Chinese checker boards, a string between two trees serves as a badminton net, a young couple cries together, kids skip and laugh and spot you and laugh harder.

You never knew how funny looking you were until visiting Southeast Asia. Sure, you had your suspicions, you even caught you're mother laughing at your appearance behind your back, but this day-to-day giggling at the sight of your sorry mug has removed all doubt. Again, congratulations. You're finally beginning to see things as they are.

Take, for instance Cambodia. The country is recollected in the following order. (1) The exuberant smiles of pitifully poor children, (2) a rickety bamboo train ride with two fun female travelers, (3) the deformed hand of a beggar that continues to haunt, and (4) Angkor Wat. Some regard Angkor's temples as the most impressive structures built by man (and maybe a woman or two) but they pale in comparison to the feelings elicited by the sight of a child in torn shorts slouched against a wall torn in two crumbling sections by American ordinance from the Vietnam War.

Hey, if the vietcong had been hiding in Canada in the late 1960s Toronto would have been obliterated too.

Realize this, that the 'sights' are just that, they may engage the eyes and the mind's five-minute attention span for, you guessed it, five minutes, but prove half as interesting as watching a sculptor craft the 'sights' of the 22nd century. They're half as memorable as a child's curious disbelief with your size 13 sneakers in Lenin Park that he requires you remove them and wiggle your toes.

Okay, enough with the solemn reflection, you're too serious for your own health. Let's talk food. In Hanoi everything is on the menu and it doesn't come fresher. Walk into a restaurant with tanks and choose a fish. Pick a rabbit from the cages. Deliberate among frogs hopping in a bucket, decide which potential Prince Charming will take up residence in your stomach. No, that isn't a kennel, silly.

What was that? You're in the mood for Lassie-mignon wrapped in bacon-a-la-Odie? There's a place for that. Hell, there's a whole street dedicated to dog meat. It's 6 kilometers north of the Old Quarter where all the Caucasoids are quarantined. Sure, the street is out of the way, easy to avoid, you can go without eating a Scooby-Doo taco. You can visit Vietnam on the neutered setting. Hell, you could just stay home and watch a Travel Channel special on Southeast Asia between innings of the Yankees game.

Or, you can walk the open markets where chickens are grabbed by the neck. They're twisted until the heads pop off. The carcasses drained of blood, you're stepping over crimson streams as you continue on to a table where fish are beheaded and gutted. Your face feels the spray from the butcher's knife. Pigs squeal one last time. These Vietnamese, they'll fry the tail, they'll throw a leg--hoof and all--into a boiling soup pot.

While eating sesame fried bunny foo-foo I'm regurgitating against it's chewy texture while bones snap-crackle-pop between molars. Later, I spit out what appear to be teeth. They didn't belong to me. They're much better suited for the back jaw bone of a rabbit.

In Thailand I went days as a vegetarian and was considering conversion. Cambodia and Vietnam solved the problem by offering far less in the protein-nutrition department. Good riddance. I'd be losing out on a primary cultural experience, local cuisine. You can't read about eating Fido over an open fire.

So I'll take that one. Yep, in the back there. The bitch hasn't stopped barking since I've been here.

Keep drifting.


A confession: I didn't dine on canine. I went to Dog Meat Street to discover that, generally, Old Yeller is reserved for special occasions. I.e., it's expensive, at least by Vietnamese standards. After eating rabbit and frog in mild disgust no 'special occasion' came to mind. You're right. I could have just watched a Vietnam special on the Travel Channel between innings of the Yankees game.

A Hoi An pirate ship.

At Hue's Citadel.

Welcome to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Bau Mau Lake in Hanoi.

Ho Chi Minh Masoleum, Hanoi.

Inside the Temple of Literature, Hanoi.

Hoi An's Japanese Covered Bridge.

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